When I was in seminary, one of the requirements was a course in systematic theology, and we had to read hundreds of pages from the work of Karl Barth, a famous 20th century theologian, whose massive theological work, Church Dogmatics, runs to like 20 volumes. It is an incredibly convoluted and dense work. I thought of bringing a selection to read to you, but I’m hoping that you will actually listen to me for a little bit of time and I’m rather sure that thirty seconds of Barth would discourage that. After our class had spent weeks wrestling with Barth’s difficult style and Teutonic prose, the professor told us a story about Barth. At one point, a cheeky reporter had asked him to sum up his million word theological tome in a sentence or two. Barth thought about it for a moment and quoted a children’s song to the reporter: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
There was, the professor was telling all us serious and earnest seminarians, a simplicity to the Christian faith. We could get wrapped in the minutiae of Barth’s neo-orthodox theology, or spend inordinate amounts of time reading about the interrelation between the different persons of the Trinity, but even Barth himself was not foolish enough to think that his writing was anything but an attempt to flesh out the heart of the Christian message, a message of stunning simplicity which a child could understand.
Which is aptly illustrated in the Gospel this morning. Sometimes Jesus teaches in complex parables, but sometimes he says exactly and precisely what he means. The disciples often don’t get it, but Jesus is speaking simply about what is going to happen: he is going to suffer, die and rise again. I find it particularly challenging to preach about the obvious passages: where is the nuance, where the need for scholarly study or clever explanation, when Jesus describing what simply is, like Barth summing his work in the lines of the children’s song: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
He tells his disciples that he must be betrayed, killed and rise again, and they are afraid to ask him what he means. They’ve heard this message before, and when Peter tried to argue with him, Jesus slammed the door on Peter pretty hard. The disciples don’t understand that Jesus is saying simply what he means.
They apparently don’t understand the simple words that he has been teaching them again and again: “Whoever wants to be first must be last and a servant of all.” The disciples don’t understand that the hierarchy of God’s kingdom is a race to the bottom, a race into nothingness, to emptying the selfishness out of yourself as fast as you possibly can, until there is room for God in the space that you’ve fought to clear in your heart. The disciples are looking for power, position, maybe even riches, but not only is that not the way that Jesus operates, but he has plainly told them again and again, in simple language, that the end of his journey, the end of their journey if they follow him is death, death of self, even physical death.
To make the message clear, Jesus draws a child from the crowd. The child doesn’t know anything about theology or whatever the current debates are. The child only knows about the joy of curiousity and discovery; about the brute feelings of love, fear and hunger.
The child becomes the symbol, the illustration to the disciples of their distance from what Jesus is teaching: arguing about position or role, they cannot see the forest for the trees, the wonder in the world around them, or the glory of an innocent, simple child. The child becomes the touchstone of their distance from welcoming God into their lives.
I’d bet that a child would become a touchstone for us as well. Let’s turn the situation around, let’s pluck a child up from our culture and time to use as a measure of our welcome of Jesus. What are the odds, do you suppose, that if we plucked a child from somewhere around Philadelphia, that child would be hungry, or lonely, or living in squalor, or barely literate? What are the odds that the child would have experienced violence or abuse? What are the odds that the child would have health insurance or adequate access to health care? What are the odds the child would survive to adulthood?
To which you might say, “But the living standards of this hypothetical child have nothing to do with welcoming them.” But we have heard the simple message of the Gospel on that too recently: to care only for the spiritual needs of a person is to fail them utterly.
No, my friends, this is the simple truth that Jesus is teaching us this morning: the measure of our welcome of the least of these is the measure of our welcome of God into our lives. Because Jesus comes to lose his life, to pour himself out as a sacrifice, to squeeze the Divine Word down into the form of a child, and if we cannot make room for a child in our lives, we cannot makes the space for God.
Like all the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, God’s compassion is for the little things, the small, that which is ignored or passed over. The orphan, the alien, the widow, the child; unless we welcome and care for them we welcome not God.
Like the disciples, I think we are being reminded of how far from the kingdom we might be. Like the disciples, we are far from grasping the simplicity that Jesus is teaching: position matters naught, shameful death matters naught; whoever wants to be first must be last and become a servant to all.
The truth that Jesus is teaching is remarkably simple. It is like the child’s song. The practice of that truth, there is where the hardness and complexity comes from. But we have here again given to us in the Gospel this morning, the gift that Jesus so often gives us of symbols which we can use to begrudgingly begin again the never-ending process of prying open our hearts: welcome the child as you would welcome God. A simple message, the practicalities of which are a lifetime’s work.
Friends, we are surrounded by children in need, children in squalor, children in dire straights. There are more then enough children in need of welcome to pry open all our hearts to God’s love and grace.
Preached by Fr. Andrew Ashcroft
St. Mark's Church, Philadelphia
20 September 2009